SOME BASICS first: In Hollywood, books aren't books, they're properties. They can be bought by any old idiot who can, lawyers permitting, erect on screen any damn fool cinematic taco stand or sewage treatment plant with the book's name.
Everything that could possibly be done to trash a promising and, to many, brilliant "property," the producers did to "Bonfire of the Vanities," Tom Wolfe's best-selling tapestry of 1980s greed, ambition and hypocrisy in New York City. They selected the least likely director (Brian De Palma), madethe worst possible choice to play a Wall Street swashbuckler and "Master of the Universe" (Tom Hanks), hired the least imaginative musical hack in Hollywood to score it (Dave Grusin). The list goes on.
You could put the movie under glass and shove it into a museum as the perfect, illustrative specimen of the Hollywood way of corruption, circa late 1980s.
Every phase of the film's production was widely greeted with a chorus of moans, groans and titters at the newest gaucheries of De Palma and executive producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters. (If the '80s were the decade of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, they were also the decade of a weird and burgeoning respect for the wormy hostility of Spy magazine and other advanced forms of haute bitchiness.)
All along the malice pipeline, there were new expressions of disbelief and new questions every month about "Bonfire": Could they possibly have transformed Wolfe's dissolute journalistic Brit into Bruce Willis? Surely they didn't turn the novel's Jewish judge into Morgan Freeman? What are they going to do now that black community leaders in the South Bronx have had a look at the script and pronounced its treatment of them vicious and racist?
All through production, "Bonfire of the Vanities" was a bloody field day for smarm-o-crats.
So here it is, show-and-tell time. Is it also a movie?
The answer, surprisingly, is yes. It's a work of literature contracted and shriveled into a reasonably nasty and nifty entertainment in much the same way George Miller's version of John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick" was. There's a good reason for that. Both were adapted by the same man, Michael Fighting tooth and claw against the clumsy, lurching depredations of Guber and Peters and De Palma, there is the vicious and often wickedly funny script that Cristofer squeezed out of Wolfe's novel. I laughed hard and reasonably often -- and usually with an edge.
The only law in making a book into a movie, of course, is that you're supposed to make a good one. In fact, the classic James Dean movie "Rebel Without a Cause" bought a serious psychological study by psychiatrist Robert Lindner and then pitched everything into the briny deep except the book's title.
I may be the only critic west of Rangoon who has read nothing of Wolfe's book except the early excerpts in Rolling Stone. I have, however, read a good 90 percent of everything else Wolfe has ever written -- more than enough to think of him as the premier social satirist and diagnostician in current American literature.
Implicit in the freedom to do anything at all with a book is the freedom that may well be the most important one for an artist: the freedom to choose one's own restraints.
Brian De Palma has never, for a single moment of his career, chosen restraints wisely and well. His slavish obeisance to Hitchcock has made him the master's most obnoxious imitator; his total lack of moral imagination turned "Casualties of War" into a cinematic atrocity.
De Palma doesn't let you forget he's around. He and his cinematographer -- the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond -- break out every camera trick in the book to give the movie some cinematic "eloquence." There are so many anamorphic lens shots
and floor shots that you may think, sometimes, that you're looking at the whole thing from the bottom of a wicked New Year's Day hangover.
Who knows? Maybe that's intentional. Cristofer's vision is of a hangover vision of New York City strangled by luxe and grossness on the top and hypocrisy on the bottom.
The idea of a self-aggrandizing "hidden agenda" was one of the great '80s inventions, and everyone in this "Bonfire" has one: the liberal Jewish district attorney who wants to be mayor (F. Murray Abraham), the Al Sharpton-like ghetto preacher with his hellfire preachments against white racism (John Hancock), the besotted journalist looking out for the main chance (Bruce Willis), the assistant D.A. looking to move up a notch or six and settle some office scores (Saul Rubinek).
They all get their chance one night when a lying, rotten Wall Street millionaire and his transplanted Southern mistress get lost in the South Bronx and hit an assaulting street kid with the millionaire's Mercedes. This is the South Bronx as hell -- some parked cars are in flames, some are being bashed into pieces by kids with bats. "Oh my God, natives," says the mistress as a black man walks toward their car.
To cast a lightweight's lightweight like Tom Hanks in the role of a consummate Wall Street operator and Manhattan grandee was a gaffe of such astonishing magnitude that, if you look at it differently, it almost seems "creative." (The best solution might have been to steal Redford away from "Havana" under cover of darkness and give him the rich, craven role of his latter-day career.)
On the other hand, Melanie Griffith isn't bad as the mistress, a buxom type who keeps the world's worst reproductions of Manet's "Olympus" and Velazquez's "Venus" on her wall. Neither is Willis as the drunken, decadent journalist, or Morgan Freeman as the Bronx judge facing 7,000 felony defendants yearly in a system that can accommodate only 750 trials.
Courtesy of Cristofer's script, the movie is full of icy, hilarious lines and icier portraiture, no matter how wretchedly De Palma vulgarizes it all.
All sorts of Manhattanites do cameos here -- Geraldo Rivera, George Plimpton, Alan King, Andre Gregory ("My Dinner With Andre") as a poet dying of AIDS who's "on the short list for the Nobel Prize."
Some sense of social size is achieved in this vicious carousel of caricatures, but there's no question that blacks who objected to the script had a point. Undoubtedly, that's why Freeman was hired to play the one part with some integrity.
And yet, when this quadrille of grotesques is over, the contemptuously burlesquing way De Palma directs Morgan Freeman in his final "Be decent" speech to the courtroom may be as large a gesture of contempt for the audience as any I have ever seen in a film. It's a way of telling everyone watching, "You're going to get a moral to all this corruption here, but you're also going to get every bit of naked hatred we can muster for accepting one."
Considering the directorial source, somehow I'm not surprised.